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John Bruce Johnson: 1931-2008

John Bruce Johnson Founded the Baltimore Playwrights Festival and Rescued the Vagabond Players in the 60s

Jefferson Jackson Steele

By John Barry | Posted 8/6/2008

John Bruce Johnson, who died July 27 at the age of 77, may have not been that visible a presence in the last decade because of his illnesses, but his contributions to Baltimore's theater community were stronger than ever. Teaching junior high school was his day job, but, by all accounts, local theater was his absorbing passion.

The Baltimore Playwrights Festival, currently in its 27th season, was founded by Johnson in 1981. "It all started because of JBJ," says Shirley Bell, who until recently was publicity director for the Vagabond Players. "Back then, if you wanted to get your plays performed, you'd have to go to different theaters. People stayed away in droves, because no one had ever heard of them. They had difficulty getting reviews. I mean, why would anyone want to see an unknown play by an unknown playwright?"

Subscribers wouldn't put up with it. The larger professional theaters didn't want to risk it. And according to Bell, Johnson, who was then a fixture in Baltimore theater and a playwright himself, had seen a number of scripts passing through his hands. "He looked at them, and he asked, `What am I gonna do with these?'"

His solution was eventually the Baltimore Playwrights Festival. Instead of trying to squeeze the occasional local playwright into a season against the will of subscribers, Johnson suggested a festival which would celebrate local playwrights and give them a chance to flourish. After 27 years, the festival is still going strong with a format which involves readings and performances of often unpublished Maryland playwrights.

Johnson's legacy is also strong in the Vagabond Players, where he served as president from 1968 to 1998. While the theater is 92 years old--the oldest continuously running community theater in the country--it had a midlife crisis in the late '60s. During the '50s, the Vagabond had been located at the Rathskeller in downtown Baltimore. When it lost its lease there, Bell says, it went from "pillar to post" for a few years. Finally, exhausted with the moves, the board of directors was coming to the conclusion that, at about 50, it had been a good run. Johnson, then president, took a different view.

"But John Bruce Johnson said absolutely not," Bell says. "He said he'd find a home for it." And he did. "Johnson took all the files from the place since its founding in 1916--all the cast lists, all the memorabilia, and dragged them to his house in Hamilton, and kept them safe." Meanwhile, he hunted for a new home. He found it at Corral's Bar on South Broadway in Fells Point.

"It was a ramshackle place, terrible looking," Bell says. Sailors used it as a watering hole, and upstairs, current Vagabond President Ann Mainolfi says, there were "these cute little rooms--you wondered what they were for." But Johnson started poking around.

"He would look around the place, and then he decided, this is where we belong," Mainolfi says. Under Johnson's presidency, Vagabond purchased the bar from the city. And then he got to work. "It was an awesome transformation," Bell says. "He turned it from a firetrap into a respectable theater."

"He was an everything person," says Mainolfi, who knew Johnson for about 20 years. "If you could put his enthusiasm and energy in a bottle, you would cherish it and give it out in drips and drops. He was amazing. And we'd do everything for him. He could be put on a pedestal."

There's no statue of him yet, but it may not be necessary. Vagabond recently made the final payment on its mortgage. And the Baltimore Playwrights Festival continues its 27th year. On Aug. 30, a memorial service will be held for Johnson at Baltimore County Community College-Essex, where Johnson was instrumental in founding the Cockpit in Court Theatre.

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